We’ve teamed up with Seiko, who make the Prospex Diver’s watch collection, to produce a #DiscoverYourPlanet series examining one of the world’s most stunning dive sites - the Silfra Lagoon in Iceland. This second episode examines why dive instructors love it here, and how operating in an extreme environment challenges their full range of skills.
Fireman. Astronaut. Deep sea diver. As kids most of us probably would have put it on the list. Even when you’re a grown-up, with a greater appreciation of what’s involved, it still sounds like one of the best jobs in the world. Guiding groups of tourists through warm, tropical waters pointing out colourful fish, turtles and manta rays? Where do I sign up!
Which is why I’m struggling slightly to understand what Taz Wood, a manager and diving instructor at Dive Silfra, is telling me. “There are no fish whatsoever in Silfra?" I ask, slightly incredulous. “Well there are fish, but because there are so many people, they all go into the [neighbouring] lake to feed. You might see tiny Arctic chars, but you usually have to go to the lake to see fish by day."
"The water in Silfra is so clear that you can take your regulator out and drink it."
Instead she tells me, the appeal of the place lies in the water of Silfra itself, which is crystal clear. So clear in fact, that you can take your regulator out and drink it.
Jonathan Sherrington, a Brit like Taz who also instructs at Silfra, explains: “The visibility has been measured and it's about 100 to 150 metres. The human eye can focus up to about 100 metres underwater, so essentially the water's clearer than you can see, which is quite an unbelievable experience. You have to pinch yourself to remind yourself you are underwater and not suspended in mid air."
It’s not hard to see how diving here would be, as Taz puts it, “a bucket list item". It’s harder to imagine why diving instructors would want to trade in tropical fish and turtles for it though. Surely once you’ve done it a few times, the novelty would wear off? In fact nothing could be further from the truth.
“Diving here is much more challenging, but it's much more rewarding as well," says Jonathan. “When you work in the tropics, you're dealing with backpackers [and] resorts. Coming here gives you a better sense of adventure. You can deal with divers who are ready for real diving."
“Go to South East Asia and anyone can get [the basic] open water qualification for £300," adds Taz. But diving in places like Silfra is a whole different ballgame, requiring further training (the week long Dry Suit Diver course) and much greater expertise on the part of the dive leaders.
The most obvious difference is the cold. The majority of recreational divers never experience temperatures colder than about 14 or 15 degrees, but the water in Silfra is a constant two to three degrees celsius, making drysuits a necessity. This presents a whole other set of issues.
“Normally if you dive in the tropics, the only air you need to think about is what's in your BCD [buoyancy control device - the inflatable vest worn by divers]" says Taz. “Whereas if you drive in a drysuit, you've got to think about [that] because you've got air [trapped] in your drysuit as well. You've got to compensate for two different types of air movement and be able to vent that air. It's a very different way to dive."
And then there’s all the extra equipment. As well as the drysuit itself, “you have to wear more weights," Taz explains. “So for example I wear two kilos in the tropics, but I wear 12 in Iceland. You've got 30 kilos [of gear] on your back and your tank weighs 15.8 kilos."
Managing all these extra elements requires particularly stringent preparation - when you're underwater you have to be sure that your gear is 100% reliable, which means buying the best kit in the first place and then checking it over carefully before each dive.
"In cold water environments, instructors must be even more on top of their checks, their gear and crucially, their timings, than normal."
If instructors have to be even more on top of their checks and their gear when diving in cold water conditions, they have to be stricter about their timings too. Clients who are cold or suffering from hypothermia won’t be happy customers.
But it’s more than that, Taz explains. Precise timings are important for making sure guests get the most of Silfra. Seen from the right angle, the sun creates crazy visual effects in the clear water, and “you want to make sure you start your dive at the right time, so you get those beautiful rainbows," Taz says.
Elli Thor Magnusson
Thankfully, looking after people is something that comes naturally to Taz. If her life to this point has prepared her for anything it’s going that extra mile to take care of clients. “I used to work in social housing," she explains, “working with victims of domestic abuse, homelessness, victims of human trafficking, drugs, alcohol - you name it, I've worked with every client group, trying to address the issues - what their fundamental problems were.
“I did a lot of work in prison as well, with people coming out of prison, mentoring them to work with current offenders in the hope that it would stop the cycle." It was gruelling work, involving long sessions with some seriously damaged individuals. “You're working with people that have been sexually abused and forced to do some horrendous things. Young kids [who were trafficked and] forced to work in cannabis factories, getting beaten really, really badly. Things like that."
Eventually, she admits, the psychological strain of the job began to take its toll. “If you do a job that is so emotionally involved, it has a [finite] lifespan because it begins to affect you as a person," she says. “I'd done it for 10 years and it had got to the point where I needed to change. You've got to be there for your clients, they're your main priority, and I just realised my head wasn't in it anymore."
Becoming a diving instructor gave Taz some much-needed space, both mentally and physically. "Being underwater is so quiet, and it's so peaceful," she explains, a huge contrast to the shouting she often encountered in her previous job. "The only thing you can hear is bubbles. It's beautiful."
Given her background, you might ask why she would chose to work in one of the world's more challenging dive locations. But it's precisely this - the fact that there are challenges to be overcome - that makes teaching here so rewarding. And really, it's still about helping people. Taz explains: “When customers get out at the end of diving Silfra they're just buzzing. They’re absolutely buzzing because they've done a bucket list thing and yeah, they just love it. Sometimes they don't want to get out of the water and you're freezing! They just want to stay in forever." She laughs.
“No, but it’s when you see that little bit of joy in somebody, that’s the best thing. I would never swap it in a million years. " Despite the cold, despite the sub-arctic conditions, despite all the technical difficulties, for Taz, being a dive instructor in Silfra really is the best job in the world. Even if there aren’t any fish.
Brought to you by Seiko - #DiscoverYourPlanet